Mother and baby home survivors fear that they will never get all the answers about their past, writes Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill
WITHOUT our history, we are trapped in strangers’ bodies… I don’t want money, I just want to know where I came from… We don’t want compassion, we want the right to know who we are.”
But many fear they never will.
Between 30,000 and 35,000 mothers went into the mother and baby homes and 100,000 children were adopted over the decades.
In some, up to half the mothers and up to half the babies died. Forced adoption was a state system for dealing with the children of unmarried mothers. Most were forcibly taken from them, fostered, adopted or reared in orphanages, all aided and abetted by the forces of the State and the State itself.
They were not just in mother and baby homes: they were in country homes, work houses and mental hospitals. Ireland had 1% of its population locked up in such places. Many were single mothers.
Babies and children were hired out as cheap labour, or sent to Britain or the US for adoptions that continued even after adoption acts were put in place in the 1950s, and were often illegal.
The records are scattered in different locations. Some have been handed over to the HSE where women have been told they should phone back in eight years because there is nobody to deal with them. Others fear that as they speak, the precious clues to their identity still held by the religious orders and bodies are being destroyed.
Those with long experience of searching through the files point to another obstacle — the documents often lie. Names and dates were changed to hide the identities, to ensure mothers are never reunited with their long-lost babies, or cover up the sale and trafficking of children.
And even the contact register put in place to supposedly help is being used to hinder them, referring them back to the system designed to keep them apart and in the dark.
“It’s the biggest white elephant, a smoke and mirrors exercise,” says Susan Lowan of Adoption Rights Alliance.
“It’s like a holocaust. More than 100,000 women lost their babies,” she told the hearing in the European Parliament in Brussels where the group, hosted by Sinn Féin, are hoping the EU will help pressurise the Government into dealing with the issue honestly and finally.
Sean Lucey of Queen’s University Belfast warned that the investigation the Government is due to announce shortly will be limited to the nine mother and baby homes, where none of the evidence can be used in criminal or other proceedings, and to which the Freedom of Information Act will not apply.
Joan McDermott had her son taken from her at seven and a half weeks in 1967. “In 2000, having spent almost 40 years in exile because the shame of what I had done, I came back to fight the system and get back my child I did not agree to get rid of. I still bore the shame of being an unmarried mother so I did all my enquiries anonymously and every door was slammed in my face.”
When she phoned the HSE, she was told to ring back in eight years. “I’m 66. I pestered and tormented until I finally got my file. My son was eight years searching for me and encountering the same — they kept us apart when we could have been together.”
Terry Harrison gave birth to her son in Bessborough, Cork City, almost 41 years ago. She had been taken from London, escorted onto a plane, driven to Bessborough where, after caring and feeding her son, had him stolen from her.
“I was threatened with the funny farm, being put in a strait jacket by the nun who pretended to be a social worker when I refused to sign the papers.”
But it’s never too late to be reunited. Mairead tells the story of the woman who was 60 when she found her mother who was 100. She thanked the person who helped profusely, saying she had waited all her life for that moment. Her new- found daughter cared for her for her final three years of life.
In many cases, whole families were kept apart — their names changed and kinship hidden.
Edel Byrne was casually told by a social worker when she was 42 that she too had a brother and a sister. Within 30 minutes, she had found her sister and her brother.
“The first time I met my sister, I was 42 and she was 45, the first time we sat and had a meal together even though we were all in Bessborough. We look like sisters, but we never played together, we were not at one another’s weddings, she had never seen my children. There were deliberate barriers put in place to prevent us uniting.”
But they never reunited with their brother who had died tragically three months previously in Los Angeles. Her sister Ina was desperately looking for him — “there were 22 social workers employed by the Irish government and they could not reconnect us.”
All three had been searching for one another. They were only united around his grave with his wife and son, in the plot where he was buried with his adoptive parents.
Mairead tells the story so many of them know — signing a blank sheet of paper that was later used to say she consented to the adoption of her baby.
Rita Tisdale knows about the fate of mothers and babies from various experiences, including working as a teenager, living in the Templehill home in Blackrock, Dublin.
There were strict rules about handling the babies — they could not be comforted when they cried. “They stopped crying after about a month.” They could not be cuddled when being fed. “You held them on your knee with a hand behind their head and fed them at a distance.”
Mary Linehan Foley, born in Bessborough in 1966, described herself as “one of the lucky ones” who had good adoptive parents and met her mother. But during the 20-minute trip from the airport, she said she learned more about herself than she had known in her whole life.
Marguerite, born in Sean Ross Abbey, in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, waved a tattered certificate that showed some of her medical history she had unearthed. Her doctor told her that she had been lied to about the mark on her back — it was not a BCG vaccine but he did not know what it was. It was close to the sciatic nerve and she wondered if this explained her having to wear special shoes as a child. But she doesn’t know and cannot find out.
“I am 53 and they are still treating me like a non-person, as they did when I was a baby.”
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